Who Owns the Future of California’s Energy? Its Residents

Despite all the money in politics, the future of cleaner energy is in the hands of local communities.
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A California transition to 100 percent renewable energy would translate to a global GHG emissions reduction of only 0.2 percent, but community choice aggregation provides a hopeful message: We can do this.

Photo by George Steinmetz/Getty Images. 

For many homeowners, rooftop solar is a smart move. But what if you could get every home and business in your entire county to switch to renewables, all at once? This is essentially what’s happening in my state, California: a quiet revolution awkwardly named community choice aggregation. 

Nine years ago, I moved with my family to Altadena, an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County nestled against the San Gabriel mountains. My only option for electricity was a for-profit, investor-owned utility, a monopoly whose profits came from higher rates, and which offered no option to purchase renewably sourced electricity.

Then, in 2010, California’s first CCA switched on in Marin County, up the coast. It faced a well-funded public misinformation campaign mounted by the county’s for-profit utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, but persevered; in 2011 the state passed a law preventing utilities from mounting such campaigns. There are now eight California CCAs, with seven more starting this year.

Community energy tells a story that people desperately need to hear: We can do something about the climate, despite all the money in politics and despite the denier in chief.

Whereas a typical utility offers its customers little or no choice about where their power comes from, CCA programs enable coalitions of cities and counties to choose. The utility then delivers that electricity using its pre-existing infrastructure. The result for an increasing number of California communities is cleaner and cheaper power.

Local control brings tangible community benefits, such as job creation and economic growth. It also allows communities to express their values. For example, communities that value climate action can pursue renewable generation, adopt efficiency programs, provide electric vehicle charging stations, adopt fair net metering rates to encourage rooftop solar, and choose to site projects in front-line communities.

Renewable energy is only getting cheaper.

So far these benefits have not come at a premium, and renewable energy is only getting cheaper. Sonoma Clean Power charges 28 percent less than PG&E for generation, even while emitting 46 percent less carbon dioxide. However, because utilities purchase electricity via contracts that span years, or even decades, they’re allowed to add a power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) to account for stranded energy purchases. (Choosing where to set the PCIA is perhaps the most controversial aspect of CCA.) After the PCIA, Sonoma Clean Power’s electricity is only 1.5 percent cheaper than PG&E. CCA proponents therefore take care not to oversell their program, promising cleaner electricity at competitive rates.

The story of CCA in Los Angeles County begins with a single citizen from Redondo Beach. In 2014, Joe Galliani attended a community Earth Hour forum featuring a founder of Sonoma Clean Power. Inspired, Galliani dove in as a volunteer, first learning all he could about CCAs, then forming a working group and meeting one on one with municipal leaders to develop support.

Marin County’s CCA had faced stiff opposition from labor unions, so Galliani found common ground with local electricians over a shared vision of a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity that would, of course, create electrical work. By September 2015, his working group had grown to 45 members, providing guidance on economic, legislative, design, governance, and public outreach issues; and 13 cities had signed a resolution for a feasibility study. The county board of supervisors voted unanimously to fund the study.

This would create at least 50,000 local construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs.

Today, three years after one committed citizen’s inspiration, CCA is imminent in Los Angeles County. Earlier this year, county supervisors voted—again unanimously—to form the CCA with $10 million in startup funding. The business plan calls for the enrollment of 5 million county residents by 2019 and installation of several dozen 50-megawatt solar plants. This would create at least 50,000 local construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs.

It’s long past time for an all-out climate mobilization, and CCA is only a small piece of the puzzle. A California transition to 100 percent renewable energy would translate to a global GHG emissions reduction of only 0.2 percent. So far, six other states allow CCA, but even a national electricity transition would translate to just a 4.5 percent global reduction. CCA must therefore be pursued in parallel with more comprehensive and far-reaching tools such as a carbon fee and dividend; the climate emergency calls for an all-of-the-above approach. Within this context, though, CCA provides a hopeful message: We can do this.